“One joke goes that Japan does not have a nuclear weapon because a single screw needed to enable it has not been tightened. That may overstate the hurdles but it captures the principle. The limit of Japanese military power is Japan’s will”
imperative to avoid another war on the peninsula. The U.S. does not want intercontinental ballistic missiles in North Korea, but it might accept a deal permitting short-range missiles. And though neither North nor South Korea really trusts the Chinese, a U.S. retreat from the region might require some accommodation with China.
Obviously, this scenario has yet to play out, but the Japanese have made it clear to anyone who will listen that the direction of accommodation is unacceptable to them. And this is where Japan runs into the trap embedded in its national strategy. Depending on its relationship with the U.S. to both protect it from major threats and excuse it from significant offensive action, the Japanese force, though far from insignificant, does not give Japan the weight to change the course of the negotiation. China has the potential to do so. The U.S. does as well. Japan does not.
Charles de Gaulle warned the world of this type of problem. The ultimate guarantee during the Cold War was that, if needed, the U.S. would escalate to nuclear war to block Soviet advance. De Gaulle argued, however, that the U.S. would not trade New York for Paris.
Now Japan must ask
far the United States would go to maintain its position in the Northwest Pacific. The region is important to the U.S., but likely not important enough to warrant a nuclear exchange.
The U.S. can exit and survive. Japan does not have the luxury.
For the first time since World War II, Japan must consider whether the strategic reality in its region could evolve in a direction “not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” to quote Hirohito’s surrender speech in 1945. Such a shift would require Japan to rethink how it sees itself and its role in the world.
Nothing may change. Indeed, with less than three weeks to go until the scheduled Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit on June 12, the U.S. was already suggesting there’s a “substantial chance” talks won’t happen in June. But if reconciliation happens, Japan may not have time to create the military force it will need to defend its interests. Japan cannot wait until there is clarity, nor can it proceed without a political crisis. Japan is trapped between a new reality and its old strategy.